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Hytec's Device Helps Straighten Teeth

By Andrew Webb
Of the Journal
    TECH BYTES: Thanks to technology developed in New Mexico, some image-conscious patients can eschew braces for virtually invisible plastic mouthpieces to fix crooked teeth.
    Santa Clara, Calif.-based Align Technologies markets Invisalign, a line of orthodontic devices that use clear plastic mouthpieces, instead of the traditional wires and brackets. But Align couldn't do that without Flash CT— a device made by Los Alamos-based Hytec Inc. that quickly scans and creates 3-D images of patients' teeth.
    The growing need for systems that aid manufacturers in quickly and cheaply designing products— sometimes to make just one finished product— has helped Hytec grow to $10 million in annual revenues in just a few years, president and CEO Tim Thompson said during a recent interview at the firm's headquarters.
    Hytec is engaged in two fields of business— marketing products that use its imaging know-how, and taking on engineering projects for national labs and other agencies, in which it specializes in positioning and isolating instruments from external vibration.
    The company's product lines use imaging software and hardware that assist in the creation of engineering prototypes or the nondestructive inspection of devices for defects.
    With Invisalign, a soft plastic impression of the patient's mouth is scanned with the Flash CT device. The resulting 3-D images are then used to make a set of 20 to 30 hard plastic mouthpieces, each with incremental changes. Over the treatment period, the devices, which cost about twice as much as conventional braces, slowly bring the patient's teeth to the desired alignment.
    According to Align Technologies, about 135,000 patients have used Invisalign since the firm began marketing them in 1998. It now has about six of the Flash CT devices.
    "Align is the world's largest rapid prototyper," Thompson says, adding that other companies are exploring similar uses.
    Following the success with Align Technologies, Hytec has since sold devices to a wide range of government agencies and such companies as Boeing. It has sold about 30 of the $500,000 devices.
    It has another imaging device, the Prism, which is used by customers like John Deere to test stress in mechanical components.
    Founded in 1996 by two former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists, the firm has grown from three to 40 employees.
    But, like the teeth orthodontist's patients, Hytec Inc. is facing some crowding of its own on the mesa of Los Alamos, where real estate and industrial spaces are expensive and hard to find.
    "We're on the verge of expansion with no space to expand into," Thompson says.
    The 8,000-square-foot building, which Hytec owns, on the southern outskirts of town was designed by its original owner for light manufacturing with a second-floor residence. Hytec now has its offices in the former upstairs home.
    Two recent attempts to buy or lease land from the city and the county subsequently fell through, as did a 2003 plan to jointly build a facility in Española with one of its largest dental imaging customers, Align Technologies.
    Thompson said the firm recently made plans to lease another 8,000 square feet in an adjacent building in the small business park where it has its headquarters.
    "It's tough," he said of doing business in Los Alamos.
    Thompson will share his company's story during a Wednesday meeting of the Technology Executive Council, a networking group sponsored by Technology Ventures Corp. For more information, visit www.techventures.org.
    SBIR WORKSHOP: Speaking of Technology Ventures Corp., the New Mexico SBIR/STTR Outreach Program will hold a workshop there Friday for local businesses interested in helping government agencies solve problems and develop technologies.
    Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants from agencies like the Department of Defense, NASA and the National Institutes of Health fund the development of technology at startup companies nationwide.
    The grant programs consist of three phases. The first, which includes about $100,000 in funding, allows a small company to begin "proof of concept" work on a technology or process that might help the granting agency. Subsequent phases allow for production and marketing of such technology and can include grants of up to $750,000.
    In 2002, New Mexico companies received $20.8 million in SBIR and STTR grants. The state's grant ranked 13th among highest state awards.
    About one SBIR/STTR proposal in eight is funded, says Barbara Stoller, director of the local outreach program, which is funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
    The event, "Nuts and Bolts of SBIR and STTR Program" will give interested entrepreneurs an overview of the program and the exhaustive proposal-writing process. It costs $50 and will be held at Technology Ventures Corp., which hosts the outreach office.
    For more information, call 843-4105.

    Andrew Webb covers technology for the Journal. You can reach him at 823-3819 or awebb@abqjournal.com.